I remember a song leader who stopped every time he led “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?” and drew our attention to the end of the first verse.
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
He would instruct us to sing instead, “For such a one as I.” He would remind us that we are valuable in God’s eyes. “We are not worms!” he would say. I suppose he was concerned about our self-images when called worms. And yes, I know that some people have grown up in toxic environments. But I’ve always considered that such steps were missing the point of the poetry as well as missing a biblical allusion. A proper explanation could help the person from a toxic environment as well as changing the word. Unfortunately, song book editors have also followed suit. You won’t find “worm” in the first verse of this song in our current song books either. “For such a one as I” is the substitute.
Isaac Watts wrote the lyrics to this hymn. I suspect that there is a biblical allusion behind the end of the first verse. People familiar with Scripture should recognize it. (People not being familiar with Scripture is part of the problem.) The passage is Isaiah 41:14.
Fear not, you worm Jacob,
you men of Israel!
I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD;
your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 41:14 ESV)
In context, it is God who calls Jacob “you worm.” And by Jacob, he means the nation of Israel. Worm in this passage doesn’t mean worthless, but it emphasizes that the nation is weak and helpless in comparison to God. It is God who helps and delivers them. In the same way, when it comes to our salvation from sin, I am weak as a worm. I can’t save myself.
Now I’m not lobbying to get “worm” back in the lyric. I can sing the line either way. But I think it is a cautionary tale. Do we know our Bibles well enough to recognize allusions in our hymns? When the world is crying out about something like self-image, do we know the Bible well enough to give a scriptural response? The Bible doesn’t focus on self-esteem but has us focus outwardly on God. When we do, we get a proper sense of self. When we love as God has inspired and instructed us, we also heal the hurts of this broken world.
The hymn having drawn the contrast between “the sacred head” that was offered and my helplessness as a worm, it boldly commits; “Here, Lord, I give myself away, ’Tis all that I can do!”
— Russ Holden